Physics Gender Gap May Be Keeping Women From Joining The Field
December 31, 2012

Lack Of Female Physics Students Symptomatic Of Scientific Gender Gap

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Only one out of every five honors-level physics students at UK high schools are women, and only 17-percent of female students apply for undergraduate-level programs in the field at universities, the Institute of Physics (IOP) discovered in a recent study.

Using information provided by the National Pupil Database (NPD), IOP officials also discovered that nearly half of all state co-ed schools in England did not have any girls participating in advanced or "A-level" physics programs during the 2011 school year, and that less than 8-percent of female physics undergrad students went on to become senior lecturers in the discipline, Elizabeth Day of The Observer reported on Sunday.

"By contrast, girls were almost two and a half times more likely to take the subject at A-level if they were at a single-sex school — a finding that suggests there might be an ingrained cultural perception in co-educational establishments that physics is somehow 'not for girls'," Day added. "Why is this happening? Is there some endemic sexism within the world of physics? Or do women simply not find it appealing?"

"It might be that the problem is embedded in the ethos of the school and that teachers are tending to interact more with boys who are more outgoing. There are all sorts of subtle messages that 'Girls don't do physics'," Athene Donald, a professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge, told The Observer. "I suppose the way we portray physicists and engineers is as if it is not normal for girls to do these things. They are often seen as quite nerdy men in programs like The Big Bang Theory. They are posed as inarticulate and that's not the kind of thing a girl is going to aspire to when she is 12, 13, 14."

While Day points out that women do account for 55-percent of biology students, physics is far from the only area where the gender appears to be underrepresented, according to a December 18 story by The Guardian's Simon Neville. A new study conducted by the Royal Society of Edinburgh found that only 4.9-percent of fellows at the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), 3.8-percent of fellows at the Royal Academy of Engineering, and 1.5-percent of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) were women, he reported.

Earlier this year, the European Commission launched an ill-advised advertising campaign designed to encourage women to consider careers in scientific fields. While the video itself was dismissed as "offensive" and "insulting" for its depiction of women, it was an attempt to solve a real problem -- namely the "large number" of female students that the Commission said "drop out of science, engineering and technology to pursue other subjects.”

“Female graduates are severely under-represented in the areas of engineering, manufacturing and construction, with women making up just 25.5% of graduates in these fields. Women are also under-represented in the areas of science, mathematics and computing, where they constitute 40.2 % of all graduates,” the Commission said back in June. “Furthermore, EU-wide, women make up only about 32% of career researchers. Most countries acknowledge that this is a problem, not only now but for the future of research. With businesses in many countries already reporting shortages of skilled workers, Europe cannot afford to waste any of its young talent."

In the US, Dartmouth College is attempting a similar campaign, only instead of picturing supposed female scientists wearing short skirts and high heels, the subjects of the New Hampshire institution's promotional video are depicted dealing with "the gritty reality of field work in Greenland," Carolyn Y. Johnson of the Boston Globe wrote last Monday.

"The topic of women in science is an important and complicated one," Johnson added. "Things have certainly improved in many respects. But even as more women are getting science degrees, women are still outnumbered by men, when you count the number who become full faculty members. The numbers are improving but remain far from equal in most fields -- a National Science Foundation (NSF) study notes that in 2008, women made up a little more than a fifth of full professors with science and engineering degrees."

Advances are also being made at some schools as well, including the Lampton School in Hounslow, England. According to Day, one-fourth of the female students attending Lampton study physics at A-level -- a feat that science teacher Jessica Hamer attributed to the staff's efforts to overcome negative stereotypes associated with the career choice and depictions of physicists in popular culture.

"We realized there was a dearth of girls, so we tried to get more speakers and role models to come into the school and talk to the pupils," Hamer said. Day said that the impact of those efforts has been "noticeable" and that the female physics students she met were "extremely bright and enthusiastic about their chosen subject." The gender gap in physics and in some other scientific fields may still be prevalent, but given success stories such as the one at the Lampton School, as Day says, "there are signs that the culture is changing."